Employee Handbooks Part I—Why Bother? And Getting Started

The end of one year and the beginning of the next is the ideal time for employers to review their existing employment policies and implement new or revised policies.  But for some employers, the employee handbook is an idea that keeps getting put on the back burner, which begs the question:  Do you actually need an employee handbook?

Employee Handbooks Matter

The answer is: if you have employees located in New York, you do need to put certain policies in writing, and if you have employees anywhere, it is certainly a good idea.

Employee handbooks serve a variety of important purposes for employers from communicating important information to employees to complying with state and federal laws.  Written work rules set expectations for employees and allow an employer to more successfully challenge unemployment claims where an employee is discharged for misconduct.  Written anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies encourage a discrimination free workplace and form the basis of a defense for employers facing lawsuits by employees.  Written leave policies can answer questions for employees and provide uniformity and clarity regarding whether paid leave is available, how it is earned, how it is taken and how it is forfeited. 

Getting Started

Over the next several weeks, this blog will explore employee handbooks and policies employers should have in writing.  But before getting to specific policies, any good employer will ask themselves a few questions in developing a handbook:

1)      What Is Our Current Practice?

For most employers, the employee handbook will codify existing practice.  The only thing worse than having no employee handbook is having an employee handbook that is not followed.  If changes to current practice are needed, simply issuing a handbook to employees will likely not be enough, and a plan will need to be developed to make those changes.

2)      Why Are We Putting This In Writing?

Often, the answer is because it is required by law or is a best practice. 

3)      How Will the Policy Be Communicated to Employees?

A beautiful employee handbook that sits on a shelf no one visits is a waste of time.  Employers need to think realistically about how employees can best access the information—a print copy?  E-mailed to the employee?  Perhaps the most important policies should be posted on a bulletin board and a copy of the manual should be in the break room.  Even better is to have multiple avenues of communication.

4)      What Training Will Be Required and Who Will Do It?

A reasonable accommodation policy that tells an employee to contact his or her supervisor is great—unless the supervisor has no idea what to do when contacted.  Not every policy is self-explanatory, and realistically, employees must sometimes be trained simply to ensure they’ve read the information.  Planning how and when employees will be trained and who will do the training will save employers in the long-run.  (We will revisit the training question later in this series).

5)      When Will the Policies Be Reviewed and Updated and Whose Responsibility Is It?

Ideally, handbooks would be reviewed at least annually by someone with knowledge of policies and best employment practices.  This won’t occur if it isn’t part of the plan.  Like job descriptions, it makes no sense to have an outdated handbook.  At a minimum, any time a practice or policy changes, that section of the handbook should be reviewed and updated and a comprehensive review should occur on some schedule to ensure newly drafted provisions don’t conflict with older parts of the handbook.

Up Next:  Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Policies—Reasonable Accommodation, Harassment, and Discrimination

 Article written by Dawn J. Lanouette, Esq.  For more information, contact Mrs. Lanouette at 607-6917 or via email at dlanouette@hhk.com . 

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